Friday, November 15, 2019

Give to God the Things that are God's


Some Pharisees …  came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? … [Jesus] said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him
Mark 12: 13-17.

It’s one of Jesus’s great take-down lines: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Pharisees were trying to trap him, you see. They had set up a no-win scenario: If Jesus said to pay taxes, he’d be siding with the hated Romans, which was sure to cause his followers to abandon him. Tell them not to pay the tax, on the other hand, and he was guilty of sedition and rebellion, which was the fast track to crucifixion.


But Jesus knew what they were trying to do, and he had an answer ready. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Romans nearby were satisfied: they presumed Jesus meant material wealth belonged to the emperor, while more “spiritual” things were God’s realm. 

The Pharisees and the rest of Jesus’s good Jewish followers would certainly have known that “the things that are God’s” is not limited to the spiritual: it means everything. God created the entire world, and everything in it. The gathered crowd would have known the words of Psalm 145:

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand, 
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

They would also have remembered the words of Leviticus: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. “ And Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And many more verses like them.

The crowds listening that day knew all of creation belongs to God, including human beings, made in God’s very image. So when Jesus told the crowds to give to God the things that were God’s, they would have understood that meant all they had and all they were. Their first duty was to God, always.

When we talk about stewardship, it’s easy to find ourselves thinking about how much to give as the Romans might have: What do we owe God? Do we owe two percent of our income? Five percent? Ten percent? Before or after taxes? How much do we have to donate to be right with God?

But stewardship is not about paying a tax or even our “fair share.” It is about acknowledging that all we have and all we are belongs to God — our material wealth, our time, our talents and our very selves. We are not owners but stewards of these gifts, and our calling is not to give back a certain percent, but to reflect prayerfully and thoughtfully on how we use all that we have in partnership with God, to accomplish God’s will for the whole world. 

It is surely God’s will that we should have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, that our children should prosper and we should enjoy the fruits of our labor and the good things of this life. The Bible is clear that prosperity is what God desires for God’s people.

Praise the Lord!
   Happy are those who fear the Lord,
   who greatly delight in his commandments.
Their descendants will be mighty in the land;
   the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
   and their righteousness endures forever.
                                                   Psalm 112:1-3

But the Bible is also clear that prosperity is not intended for us alone. The blessings God gives are intended to be shared, so that everyone can rejoice in them. God wants everyone to have enough to eat and a safe place to live and for everyone’s children to prosper.  And for that to happen, we need to give some of what God has entrusted to our care to others, so that all may share in the blessings of our good and gracious God.

Stewardship, then, requires us to begin by counting our blessings, and offering thanks to God for all that we have.  It then requires us to ask, “What of this can be shared with others, that they may know the goodness of God?” This means our material wealth, of course, but also our time and our talent. It means giving our whole selves to that partnership with God that is re-making the world.

Some of the things we do will be to care for ourselves, so that we can bring a whole and healthy self before God. We will pray, and eat healthy meals, and exercise. We will keep the sabbath, so that we are renewed and rested. We will devote ourselves to our work, so we can be proud of our labor and have fruitful relationships with co-workers. 

Some of the things we do will be to care for our families: spending time together, nurturing and caring for children, grandchildren and aging parents, making sure their emotional and physical needs are met. We will save for our future and theirs and seek out wise advice so we can support ourselves in old age and provide for future generations. 

Some of the things we will do will be to care for our communities and the wider world. We will give to charity and organizations that support those in need; we will volunteer our time for worthy organizations that are working to make a difference in the world; we will visit lonely neighbors, care for the sick, and help those in need; and we will participate in  the political process, reminding our elected officials to act out of concern for the poor and vulnerable and in the interest of justice and peace.

And some of the things we will do will be to care for our church, because the church reminds us that all we are and all we have are God’s, and helps us find opportunities to serve, refreshment in worship and prayer, encouragement in study of the Scriptures, and a community of people who love and care for one another.  I hope you will give generously, so that we can continue to offer the hospitality of our building, the beauty of our worship, and our service to the community. Our budget depends on the generous giving of our members: without it, we simply will not have the resources to continue doing the work God has given us, as a community of faith, to do. 

But most of all, I hope you will find joy and delight in giving to God the things that are God’s — because in doing so we recognize that all of creation is enfolded in his love and care, and we  know ourselves to be wholly God’s, beloved and chosen. We give generously not out of fear but out of gladness and thanksgiving, because we know the One in whom we live and move and have our being. 

May you be blessed abundantly in this season of Thanksgiving.

Suzanne

Rev. Suzanne Wade
Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Westford, MA

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Great Commission -- April 29

 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in t he name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Matthew 28:16-20


Matthew’s gospel includes only a few brief moments with the resurrected Jesus. In Matthew 28, the women go to the tomb, which is guarded by Roman soldiers, and suddenly an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone. The soldiers pass out in terror. As in Mark’s gospel, the angel tells them “He is not here; he has been raised, as he said,” and instructs them to go tell the other disciples and to go to Galilee.  In Matthew’s gospel, as the women run from the tomb, Jesus suddenly appears before them and says, “Greetings!” After they fall at his feet and worship him, he says, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

And that’s it, until we get to today’s passage. The disciples apparently decamped from Jerusalem and hurried back to Galilee, where Jesus was waiting for them just as promised. If it all feels hurried and confusing, I think that was probably the disciples’ experience as well. After all, even as they worship him, we are told, “some doubted.” Even the evidence of their own eyes was not enough to expel the bewilderment they felt. 

But Jesus doesn’t chastise them, or wait for everyone to get with the program. Instead, he tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, to baptize and teach. Perfect understanding, utter certainty, and a well-developed theology of salvation do not seem to have been pre-requisites for this new commission.
Instead, what they receive is a promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Resurrection means the work continues, but we do not have to undertake it alone. We may struggle. We may doubt. But there is no longer reason for despair. No matter what roads we find ourselves on, the Risen Christ has gone before us. 

As we move through Eastertide into Ordinary Time, we may find the experience of the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee to be the one that best approximates our own experience.  It may not aways be clear to us what we are doing, or what we should expect. We may be there because someone else has told us that Jesus will show; we may find, even in the midst of the experience, that we have doubts. 


But perfect clarity and a fully articulated theology are not the essential ingredients for going out to share the Good News. What is needed is an openness to meeting Jesus in unexpected places, in the midst of the work that has been given to us to do.

The first disciples took their first steps away from the mountaintop feeling the same mix of confusion and hope we so often feel today. They did not wait for everything to fall into place, instead trusting in Jesus who promised to be with them. If we follow their lead, we may well find that it is in the telling of tale that we begin to see where we were going all along. And we will certainly discover that he is with us in the midst of it, to the very end. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Feed my Sheep -- Sunday, April 22

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Jesus and Peter
 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ John 20:1-19

This week’s post-Resurrection appearance follows Jesus’ two appearances to the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Up until now, we’ve had no report of words between Peter and Jesus. We know Peter was one of the two disciples who, upon receiving the remarkable news of the empty tomb, ran to the tomb to see for himself. But Jesus was not there, and in the prior two appearances, there is no report of any kind of personal exchange between Peter and Jesus. 

The silence invites curiosity. We all remember reading on Good Friday Peter’s dramatic denial of Jesus — three times before the cock crowed, just as Jesus predicted. In John’s Gospel, it is told simply, a bare recitation of fact: three questions, three denials, and then finally the bald statement, “and at that moment the cock crowed.” We are left to imagine how Peter felt or what he did next: he does not appear in the narrative again until Mary Magdalene runs to tell him the stone has been rolled away. 

But it is not hard to imagine Peter agonizes over his failure. His absence from the scene of the cross is notable; in John’s version the Beloved Disciple is there to hear Jesus’ last words and take Mary into his care, as are several women, but not Peter. Presumably he is present in the upper room with the other disciples, but he doesn’t utter a word — is he struck dumb with fear that Jesus will not forgive him? Is he waiting for Jesus to speak, to condemn him for his faithlessness? 

By the time we get to this story, he is willing to wait no longer. When he realizes the miraculous catch is a gift from the Lord, he leaps into the sea to reach Jesus faster. And finally, we hear Jesus speak to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?”  

At first, it seems like a fair question, given Peter’s earlier denial. But then it’s repeated. And then again, a third time! Peter feels hurt, the Gospel writer tells us: hasn’t he already given the answer? 

But Jesus is not asking because he needs to know: he’s asking because Peter needs to know. Peter is given the opportunity to turn his denials into affirmations. Instead of denying Jesus, he is invited to serve him. Just as he denied Jesus three times, now he is asked, three times, do you love me enough to take up the work I am leaving undone? To care for my flock, as I would? Even if it means going where you do not want to go? Even if it means dying as I did?

And this time, Peter says yes. This time, he takes up the staff and follows. This time, Jesus does not contradict him when he says, “You know that I do.”  

it is often said that God is a God of second chances. But with Peter, we see that God is not just God of second chances, but of third chances, and fourth chances, and fifth chances. Indeed, God never seems to give up on us, even when we have failed about as abysmally as it is possible to fail. Instead, God invites us to stand up, dust ourselves off, and try again. He invites us back into right relationship, invites us to take up the work that anyone else might have deemed us unworthy for. We need not hide at the back of the room, stay away from the table, or avoid making eye contact. The love shown to us in Jesus is not limited by our failure to live fully into that love. Instead, that love is offered again and again — as many times as we need, until we are finally ready to follow. 

“Do you love me?” Lord, you know that we do. “Then feed my sheep.”  What are we waiting for? What is holding us back? Because we are already forgiven, already welcomed, and Jesus awaits our response.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Road to Emmaus -- Sunday, April 15


Luke 24:13-35 
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

What is most striking to me in this story is the way Cleopas and his companion don’t recognize Jesus when they encounter him. They spend all afternoon with him, walking and talking, and yet somehow overlooking the identify of a man they presumably knew well. Admittedly, they weren’t expecting to run into Jesus on the road to Emmaus: Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, the last person you would expect to meet while traveling is the friend you had buried just three days earlier. 

It is fair, I think, to wonder why these disciples left Jerusalem before the question of Jesus death had been settled. Had the stress of not knowing what was going on just gotten to be too much for them? Did they have someone in Emmaus waiting for them, and they felt they just couldn’t delay any longer? Were they afraid that rumors of a risen Jesus would bring a crackdown from the authorities? The story doesn’t say. Whatever the reason, the encounter with the Risen Christ would change the calculus, and the pair hurried back to Jerusalem.

Most of Luke’s audience had never met the living Jesus, and wouldn’t have recognized him if they bumped into him walking along the road, either. I think this story is likely offered for their sake, the ones whose experience of the Risen Christ began with the breaking of the bread. This story validates that experience, assuring them that even if they never knew Jesus in life, their recognition of Christ in the Communion table is a true and valid way of knowing him. 


None of us has ever seen Jesus of Nazareth, either, despite all those lovely Renaissance paintings.  No one knows what the living Jesus looked like, which has sometimes led us to re-make him in our own image and made it harder to recognize the Risen Christ. I suspect most of us would not immediately know Jesus if he were seated next to us on an airplane. But this story suggests that doesn’t mean we cannot come to know Jesus. Indeed, it assures us we can. Even though the Risen Christ comes to us in places we don’t expect and in guises that are not readily recognizable to us, we can come to see him clearly by the ways he is revealed  to us—in Scripture, through acts of hospitality, and of course, in the breaking of the bread.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Doubting Thomas -- Sunday, April 8

John 20:19-31 
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


The reading for the Sunday after Easter is always this passage from John, an account of two post-Resurrection appearances to the disciples, and especially the appearance to Thomas, who earns the name ”Doubting” with his response to his friends’ account of Jesus’s first appearance. I have had many people tell me this is one of their favorite stories in the Gospels: the skeptical Thomas resonates with anyone who has struggled with their faith. 

Doubt in the face of such an incredible story is not new: Thomas has been something of a patron saint for those who have throughout Christian history wrestled to understand how God could possibly have become human, die on a cross, and rise from the dead. But there is also no denying that Thomas’s demand for empirical evidence before he buys the story the disciples tell fits nicely into our modern era, with its emphasis on the scientific method as a source of knowledge.

In the past few months, as I work on my book about the Biblical narrative in modern American culture, I’ve read a bunch of books and watched more than a few movies featuring Biblical characters. In doing so, I have noticed that in many of the most recent re-tellings of Biblical stories, God is no longer an active character. For example, in the Genesis account of Noah and the Ark, God is the main character, talking openly about his frustration with how human beings have turned out, offering clear and detailed instructions to Noah about what he wants done, and then actively participating in the rescue of Noah’s family by personally closing the door of the ark.  Noah, by contrast, barely speaks in the Genesis story; we get little sense of his personality beyond the assurance that God finds him righteous. In the 2014 movie Noah, by contrast, God is distant at best and totally absent at worst.  He is vaguely referred to as “The Creator” and his only communications with Noah come in the form of cryptic visions and the appearance of a magical forest that grows up overnight after Noah plants a seed from Eden given to him by his grandfather.  It is Noah’s struggle to understand what he must do that drives the movie, and it is Noah’s lack of understanding of God’s will for him the provides the dramatic tension of the second half.


The frequent appearance of this “God-shaped hole,” as Prof. Thomas Shippey of St. Louis University calls the absence of a divine presence in the Harry Potter novels, is perhaps unsurprising in a culture that no longer views the world as a magical place. In a world where many mysteries of the past have been solved by scientific investigation — where we can see the microscopic organisms that cause sickness, storms can be predicted before they even form, and everything from the flight of wild geese to the path of comets can be mathematically described — it is harder to believe in a human-like God who walks with, talks with, and personally encourages a guy like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses.  Our own experiences of the divine are generally less direct and more open to interpretation.

Into this God-shaped hole steps Jesus. But with 2,000 years between us and the events of the Gospels, and a lack of outside witness or archeological evidence for the events described, we find ourselves in much the same position as Thomas. We are being told a far-fetched story that cannot possibly be true — and we are being assured that it is, in fact, true.

The story of Thomas may not entirely assuage our own doubts. But it does suggest that our skepticism is not a stumbling block for the Risen Christ.  Jesus comes to Thomas despite a locked door and a crowd of people, not to chastise him for lack of faith but to offer what he needs to believe. Thomas’s response — “My Lord and My God!” — is one of the most direct and positive affirmations of who Jesus is anywhere in scripture.

Where have your doubts been met with an experience that allowed you to find faith? What do you still struggle with? What signs have helped you come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God? What do you still need so that through believing you may have life in his name? 

Now What?

Last Sunday, we celebrated the great festival of Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar. On Easter, we remember Christ’s rising from the dead and the surprise of the women who came to the tomb and found it empty. 

But as I talked about in my Easter Day sermon, this celebration is not the climactic end of the church year. In fact, it comes shy of midway through the year that began with our preparations for Christmas, and will not end until just after Thanksgiving. It turns out that this great celebration is just the beginning. 

The Gospel according to Mark, which we read on Easter Sunday, ends right there, with the women fleeing from the empty tomb and, amazed and terrified by the startling news the Jesus had been raised from the dead. According to the last words of the Gospel, they fled and told no one.

Well, clearly they told someone, eventually, or we wouldn’t have this account to read on Easter morning. But the original ending of Mark’s gospel just stops there, unresolved, like a piece of music where the musicians put down their instruments before the final measure. We lean forward, knowing there MUST be more to come, there must be more to the story than this. 

And there is. The other three gospels — Matthew, Luke, and John — all relate encounters with Jesus after the Resurrection. We get a glimpse of the disciples’ confusion and fear, their uncertainty about what to do next.  We discover a Jesus who is both undeniably the man who died on the cross, and also unrecognizable to his closest friends.  If we listen carefully, we will hear ourselves invited to become part of the story of salvation, a story that finds a new and improbable beginning with the empty tomb. 

You are invited to join us for the next four weeks in reflecting on these stories of the post-Resurrection Jesus. Each Friday,  I will post the week’s reading and a brief reflection on how we might approach this story. On Sundays, there will be a table at coffee hour after worship for those who would like to talk about the story and share their own thoughts about what it has to say to us here and now.

I look forward to walking with you on this Easter journey. 


Rev. Suzanne

Friday, January 26, 2018

Two Are Better Than One: A Pastoral Letter to the People of St. Mark's

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

My daughter is a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy, so we’ve been working our way through the series on Netflix. Recently, we watched an episode which follows the dramatic ups and downs of a couple who had been married for 60 years. As is typical in medical dramas, the story begins in the emergency room with the wife being diagnosed after a fall. A diagnosis of a dangerous medical problem leads to a risky surgery, and then a moment of triumph when the woman awakes and makes a funny comment to her anxious husband. Along the way, the husband shares with the medical staff his deep and abiding love for his wife and the secrets of the success of their 60-year marriage.

And then the story takes a sad turn: the wife dies suddenly in her sleep. The husband reports the outcome with sorrow and resignation. Paperwork is done. Sympathy is offered. And then he leaves. Alone. The last shot is of the elderly man walking slowly out the hospital doors utterly and completely alone.

I immediately turned to my daughter and said, “He wouldn’t be alone if he were a member of my church.”  Remarkably, she didn’t even roll her eyes at me. She just agreed: She knew that if a member of St. Mark’s called to say his wife of 60 years had just died unexpectedly, I’d already be on the road to meet him at the hospital and give him a ride home — if someone else from the church didn’t get there ahead of me. People from St. Mark’s would have made sure that everything was organized for the funeral, dropped off casseroles so he had something to eat, checked in with him in the weeks afterwards, and sat shoulder to shoulder with him in the pew as he wept out his grief on Sunday mornings.

But the Grey’s Anatomy episode depicts a reality for more and more people. Sociologists have been charting a steady reduction in social participation and a growing sense of loneliness since Robert Putnam first identified the trend in his 2001 bestseller, Bowling Alone. As recently as September, former surgeon general Vivek Murthy wrote in a cover story in the Harvard Business Review, “There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.”

And that loneliness is taking a toll.  Studies have shown that lonely people are more likely to have a variety of health problems, and are more likely to die earlier. Loneliness is a significant contributor to addiction, and a lack of social connection plays a key role in the opioid epidemic.  Gun violence, especially mass shootings, has been linked to social isolation.

For those reasons alone, we in the church might choose to address the growing sense of social isolation that is taking a toll on many in our communities, and sociologists say we are well equipped to address it. A 2010 AARP survey found that people who considered themselves spiritual and regularly attended worship services were less likely to report being lonely than those who did not. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote, “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the most important repository of social capital in America.”

But building communities full of people with strong relationships with one another is more than just another service project: it is the heart of what it means to live as Christians.  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ,” St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12. “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.”

Advice on how to care for one another in Christian community is found in virtually every letter Paul wrote to the early church. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, fulfill the law of Christ,” St. Paul writes to the Galatians. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” he advises the Philippians. “Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them,” he instructs the Thessalonians.

Our calling as church is to stand opposed to the cultural forces that are pulling Americans apart and increasing our loneliness, and to build the kinds of deep, loving relationships that allow us to support one another through the trials of life and to celebrate with one another in moments of triumph.

And we often do so well. During our Mutual Ministry Review this spring, several people highlighted the connections they had made while serving on ministry teams, such as the Altar Guild, Bible Study, Outreach, and Choir. They commented on how the relationships formed in those groups meant they were surrounded by friends praying for them when something went wrong in their lives. They remembered fondly fellowship gatherings over the years that gave them a chance to get to know other people from St. Mark’s, and the lifelong friendships born over a Hawaiian Feast. Many spoke of the friendships they have made here as some of the most important in their lives.

But we are not immune to the cultural forces working against those connections, either. We often feel pulled in multiple directions, trying to meet conflicting expectations and needs. We devote ourselves to our work, we commit ourselves to our children’s education and interests, we care for aging parents. All of which are very important, but the result is that we are here less often for each other. As worship attendance becomes less frequent, we may go weeks or months without seeing old friends on Sunday morning. Families feel discouraged because their children are the only ones there, and they have a hard time getting their teenagers to come because they do not see peers at church. Newcomers find it harder to make connections, since they don’t see the same faces week to week. We gradually stop doing the things as a church that used to give us a chance to be together and serve others, because there are too few participants to sustain them.

Poet Wendell Berry wrote:
Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.

We have arrived at a point where we must choose: will we succumb to the cultural forces pulling us apart, or will we decide to do community? And are we willing to do it all the time?

There is no doubt that what we are struggling with is not unique to St. Mark’s, or even the Episcopal Church. It is not unique to religious organizations. Across the board, Americans participate in civic activities less than ever before. It is almost laughable to think that the handful of us here can reverse that trend.

But I believe, with God’s help, we can choose to be the kind of community that is an answer to loneliness. The kind of community where we pass time with people just to build trust, and be neighborly. The kind of of community where deep, faithful friendships develop over time.

All we have to do is show up. Even when we are tired. Even when we don’t really feel like it. We have to show up not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of the people around us. For the sake of the person feeling lonely and afraid, who needs someone to pray with today. For the sake of the frazzled parent, who is at their wits’ end managing a rambunctious toddler today. For the sake of the new widow or the adult child mourning a recently deceased parent, who needs someone to hold their hand while they cry today. For the sake of the new visitor, who needs someone to turn in the pew with a big smile to greet them today. For the sake of the person returning for the third time, who desperately needs to see a familiar face today. For the friend who has been traveling for weeks and who longs to be reminded they are home today. For the sake of sharing life’s joys with one another – the good news of engagements and grandchildren, new jobs and planned retirements, of healing and hope.

All we have to do is show up for one another.

In the coming year there will be many opportunities to show up. We will gather for worship every Sunday morning at 10 a.m., and at 5 p.m. for Compline. You can meet up with friends and make new ones at the fun fellowship activities the vestry is sponsoring every other month. You can show up to serve others at St. Paul’s Soup Kitchen on the first Wednesday of the month, or by worshipping with the residents of Bridges by Epoch on the third Wednesday of the month. You can join the pastoral care team in showing up for the aged, the sick, and lonely, bringing them communion or just going by to visit. You can show up for Bible study on Wednesday or Friday mornings or for our Lenten soup supper series in February and March. You can show up for our Pentecost Party when I set off on sabbatical on May 20, and for our Welcome Sunday party on the Sunday after Labor Day. You can show up for one another while I am gone on sabbatical, so that no one’s needs go unmet. You can even come to worship in the summer (yes, we actually do have worship all summer long!) for the sake of one another and the priest taking my place at the altar.

And yes, I know what I am asking is hard. I know you are very busy with important things. I know you struggle to find time for everything you need to do. I know that you cannot do everything. I know that even if you do your very best, you will not be able to be here every Sunday, for every service project, for every meeting, for every social event, or maybe even for most of them. I know there will be times when you need to be somewhere else, when other responsibilities and relationships must take precedence. I know that sometimes doing even one more thing feels impossible.

But St. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” So I am asking anyway: Will you renew your commitment to show up for one another? Show up for one another for the sake of the One who showed up for us. Show up for one another because in the long run, the friendships that result will be what bring you the most joy, and will be what sustains you in difficult times. Show up for one another because when you bear one another’s burdens, you fulfill the law of Christ.

And as Paul says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Come, taste and see that God is good.

Your sister in Christ,
Suzanne

PS. In 2019, I hope to offer two travel opportunities that will give us opportunities to deepen our relationships with one another and with the wider community: a second mission trip to visit our mission partners in Haiti, and a pilgrimage to the Cathedrals of England. For more information, indicate your interest on the sign up sheet today or let me know directly that you're interested in one of the trips.